June 19, 2013
Berlin’s Pergamnon Museum has been the subject of various restitution requests from countries such as Turkey. Not for the first time though, Germany is trying to turn the whole situation on its head, by clamouring for the return of some of the artefacts from its museums that were taken by Russia. This approach would be fine – but for as long as it ignores the requests for restitution of items such as the Pergamon Altar, they shouldn’t expect other countries to have too much sympathy with their predicament.
It has to be added though – that Russia’s behaviour has hardly been exemplary either. Particularly in its attempts to deliberately highlight just how many artefacts they managed to illegally acquire from Germany.
Tuesday 18 June 2013
The Pergamon Museum offers a pointed message from Berlin to Russia – give our treasures back
Briefly in Berlin, I took time out to visit the Pergamon Museum, which houses –among many, many antiquities, the remains of the great temple and its altar. If you’re at all queasy about how the Elgin Marbles reached the British Museum and why they are still there, you should probably give the Pergamon temple a miss. Otherwise, it is one of the great relics of the ancient world, rescued – or looted, depending on your view – for the delectation and education of more northerly Europeans.
There are, though, good reasons why – despite any misgivings – it’s worth going. One is that the Pergamon Museum is part of a grand, and still growing, ensemble that occupies Museum Island just a short distance from the Reichstag. Clustering so many grand collections together, rather than scattering them around the city in the name of regeneration, provides a magnificent monument to high culture that is unique to Berlin.
Another is for what it says about the practicalities of German reunification. Much of the island, which is in the former East Berlin, is in the throes of extensive restoration. And all the wraps, noise and excavations, along with the empty spaces before you cross to the island, are a reminder of how much remains to be done to knit the city together more than 20 years after reunification. Each time I go to Berlin, the disparities between west and east – in shops, building quality and overall feel – are less conspicuous. But the scale of the task to fill in the empty middle was, and is, enormous.
And, third, for all the Checkpoint Charlie memorabilia, it’s hard now to remember that the East was not just walled in, but under Russian occupation – unless you go to Treptow Park, where the vast Russian war memorial still stands. Elsewhere, Russian traces are mostly gone, including from the Pergamon Museum, where the information boards are now in German and English, and sometimes in Turkish, but not Russian.
Except for one. On the first wall, there is a summary of how the remains of the temple came to be in Berlin. They were, it says, displayed in Berlin until 1943, when they were taken to Russia. They were returned in 1958, unlike – the notice goes on pointedly – many other stolen artefacts. This board is in German, English and Russian – the only Russian, so far as I could see, in the whole museum. The hope presumably is that Russian tourists – of whom there are many – will take the message home.
- Turkish replica of Pergamon altar : April 29, 2006
- Universal museums & selective hearing : January 20, 2009
- The Soviet return of looted artworks from Dresden : September 4, 2005
- Germany wants Russia to return looted artefacts : July 28, 2005
- Artefacts from German Museums now in Russia : June 3, 2005
- How smuggled Turkish artefacts fill foreign museums : January 4, 2009
- Germany refuses Nefertiti Bust return request : February 22, 2011
- Is Turkey doing too little to retrieve its artefacts? : March 5, 2006